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A Tour of Historic California Vineyards

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looking west, toward the hills, at Pagani Ranch Vineyard

This month I toured some of California's oldest vineyards with a group of winemakers who make wines from these vineyards. The vineyard tour and the dinner that followed were organized to raise funds for the Historic Vineyard Society, whose mission is to document and preserve these precious pieces of California's vinous heritage.

California's first vineyards were planted starting in 1779 by Franciscan missionaries directed by Father Junipero Serra. The vines planted were what have become known as Mission grapes, or Criolla, a term that covers a few varieties of pink grapes traditionally used for sacramental wine. The first non-Mission grape plantings in California, with European, or vitis vinifera, grapes used for fine wine making, were Jean-Louis Vignes's plantings in Los Angeles in 1833.

Northern California, especially Sonoma, became the focus for plantings shortly after some settlers there declared their independence from Mexico in 1846. Following the Mexican-American War, Mexico ceded Alta California to the U.S., and in 1850 California became a state. One of the vineyards we visited, now known as Fredericks Vineyard, is thought to have been the first hillside vineyard planted, also in 1850.

The first non-Mission grapes were planted in Northern California in Old Hill Ranch Vineyard, one of the other vineyards we toured, in 1852. Hungarian merchant Agoston Haraszthy, who founded Buena Vista winery, made several trips to France, Spain and Italy in the 1850s and early 1860s to obtain cuttings of an estimated 300 varieties that he brought back to California.

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old vine Zin and mixed blacks at Old Hill Ranch

Old Hill Ranch, which had been planted largely to Zinfandel, won an award in Europe for its wines in the 1860s. The press it obtained for receiving this award led to heavy plantings of Zin in Northern California in the 1860s and 1870s.

Unfortunately, these European grapes lacked resistance to the indigenous American phylloxera louse, which infects and poisons vine roots. These early plantings were therefore destroyed at about the same time as virtually all the vineyards of Europe were decimated by the phylloxera that had hitched a ride on cuttings of American grapes brought to England by botanists in the 1850s. As a result, the oldest vines still producing in California date back to the mid-1880s, when vineyards were replanted by grafting European grapes onto phylloxera resistant American and hybrid rootstock.

By the time of the replantings, in the 1880s and 1890s, Italians and other Europeans with winegrowing experience had arrived in the area. Their experience with planting a variety of grapes, so as to have a mix of grapes for blending, contributed to the phenomenon of "field blends" in many of these early California vineyards, dominated by the Zinfandel that had already proven successful. Other commonly planted grapes were Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet and Carignane.

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Joel Peterson, with Zin vine on the terraces at Fredericks Vineyards

According to Joel Peterson, founder of Ravenswood, who led my portion of the tour group, Zin was ideal for planting in many different locations because it is much more flexible than a grape like Cabernet Sauvignon, which gets vegetative in flavor when it's not fully ripe, or can taste like rubber tires when it gets too ripe. Zin varies with the topography and climate where it's planted. It typically takes on more strawberry and red fruit characteristics, but as the climate gets warmer, it can go from boysenberry, to mixed red and black fruit flavors, to blackberry, with lower acidity and higher tannins.

A mix of blending grapes can be used to accommodate the way Zin expresses itself in a particular site. Carignane gave acidity when Zin got too ripe. Petite Sirah provided tannins. Alicante Bouschet brought high concentrations of anthocyanins for color. So according to Joel, Zins contributed the perfume and spice, but mixed black grape blends produced a combination that was more balanced and capable of aging -- important considerations at a time when wines had to be much more structured and sturdy to survive in an era before the refrigeration and bottling techniques we have today.

In three of the vineyards we visited -- Old Hill Ranch, Bedrock (formerly part of Madrone Ranch) and Pagani Ranch -- 30 or more different grape varieties can be found.

The primary purpose of the non-profit Historic Vineyard Society, founded by Joel's son and fellow winemaker, Morgan Twain-Peterson, and three other winemakers, is to catalog California's historic vineyards and to identify and preserve the diversity present in these field blend plantings.

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lichen encrusted Grenache vine at Old Hill that is probably 130 years old

Morgan and other HVS board members can readily identify 20-25 varieties by sight. They've found dozens of varieties in these historic vineyards. Some are extinct elsewhere, like Castets, which is nearly gone from France. They've also found seven different types of Muscat and lots of Mission-type grapes. Some are still a mystery as there is no matching DNA for them in the database that now includes 10,000 grape varieties.

We ended the day with a delicious barbecue dinner accompanied by wines made from the vineyards we had just visited. The dinner was held under a tent in the middle of Bedrock Vineyard, which was purchased by Joel Peterson in 2004.

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This beautiful vineyard was originally planted in 1854 by William Sherman and Joe Hooker, prior to their service as generals in the Civil War. Sherman was then a banker in San Francisco, who funded the operation, while Hooker was in charge of the farming. Their aim was to grow grapes and farm produce for the then burgeoning population of San Francisco. Three decades later, the vineyard passed to the former American Consul to China, Eli T. Shepherd. He was the one who had to deal with the devastation of phylloxera starting in 1886. Shepherd rejoiced when he managed to sell the vineyard on to Senator George Hearst in 1887. Hearst replanted, starting in 1888, on phylloxera resistant rootstock that he was able to obtain thanks to his connections with the University of California.

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small lake in Bedrock Vineyard

Hearst replanted to mixed black grapes, three-quarters of which were Zinfandel, but with some blocks that were up to 40 percent Alicante Bouschet or Gran Noir. There are amazing ancient vines of Mourvèdre, Grenache and even Mission grapes in this vineyard, from which Morgan and others are still making terrific wine. Of the vineyard's 153 acres, about 33 contain these old vines.

The vineyard was sold by Hearst's widow, Phoebe Appleton Hearst, to the California Wine Association, which held the deed through Prohibition. It was later sold to the Parducci and Domenici families. Following a conflict, settled by a coin toss, the Domenicis took control of what is now the Bedrock Vineyard in 1953 while the Parducci's took a smaller section of the vineyard with its winery (Valley of the Moon).

When Peterson purchased, the vineyard was not farmed that well. They removed 40% of the fruiting positions and cut back on irrigation, among other things. Now the vineyard is yielding a healthy two to two and a half tons per acre. Ravenswood, Carlisle and Bedrock were the first wineries to get grapes following the sale to Peterson. Lately Turley, Biale and Dashe are also making wines from these grapes.

For more about all four of the vineyards we visited, along with tasting notes on wines from these vineyards, see the full report on my blog here. For more information on the Historic Vineyard Society, see their website.